Lights mounted on camcorders are fairly crude and often frustrating; but there are times when you just gotta have 'em.
When you're shooting news, documentary, wedding, family, or other event videos, you're always on the move -- and your light has to move with you. The good news is, if you take care in choosing, equipping, and using your "inkie"; (as historic Hollywood called them), you can achieve surprisingly good results.
Shopping for On-camera Power
Camcorder lights retail from around $20 to more than $500. The high-end units are as versatile as studio lights. The first thing to look for is flexible light intensity. Some units achieve this by putting multiple lamps in a single reflector, so you can switch on as many as you need. Others put the lamps in two or three separate reflectors; some are designed to throw a narrow beam while others shape a wide one. That way, you can control not only the light intensity, but its pattern as well. Still other models vary intensity with a built-in dimmer and/or a focus-able lamp. (Don't forget: flooding the lamp reduces its intensity while widening its beam spread.)
On-Camera Light Accessories
Finesse with on-camera lighting requires accessories that are essential to shaping, or at least, taming the beam.
At the very least, consider choosing a product with the ability to add scrims (a metal frame holding wire mesh to lessen light intensity but not soften it), diffusion, filters, and (for my taste, at least) barn doors. Many units come with these goodies included.
Barndoors are barndoors, but with filtration materials, different models again offer different solutions. Some are fitted with a classic front channel that holds interchangeable scrims, diffusion, or filter rings. Others have a hinge on the front of the unit for a diffusion ring and a daylight filter, so that the user can swing them into or out of the light -- a very handy feature when you're working fast.
As always, the bigger the light source, the softer the light. You can increase your light size by using gaffer's tape to attach spun glass diffusion in front of it. Or, you can purchase mini fabric softboxes that work just like their big siblings. Some are add-on accessories, but in other cases, the whole unit is designed and sold as a softbox.
Camera Mounts and Juice
Camcorder lights clamp into the built-in shoe mount; but can give your subject that deer in the headlight or suspect in a police lineup look.
The solution is to offset the light as much as practical, and that means an articulated arm accessory between light head and camera shoe. When hunting for this item, check still camera gadgets as well as video: these arms are often designed for strobe units.
In the power department, the longer you use a battery in a shooting session, the more power you'll need; and bigger capacity always means heavier weight. Trust me: batteries mysteriously add apparent weight as you schlep them around.
Which brings us to battery type. Bricks or blocks hung on your belt or from a strap over your shoulder can power a typical light for a considerable period. Battery belts last longer and distribute the weight better, if you can't swap power sources in mid-shoot.
In selecting a battery, consider the charging system. Some chargers operate on 12-volt automobile power as well as on AC current. That's a real plus.
Batteries never, repeat, never last as long as advertised. To cover myself, I use three: one working, one in reserve, and one in the charger. That system hasn't failed me yet (touch wood).
Using Your Rig
Camera lights should be used to fill subject faces or, in dark locations, to light them completely. Don't expect to light wide shots. You will indeed increase the overall light level, but the effect will range from drab to downright unpleasant. The trick is to ensure that the subject is not noticeably brighter than the surroundings. To lower intensity you can dim or switch off lamps, depending on your unit, or simply move back from the subject and re-frame the shot at a longer lens setting.
If you have a light offset arm, try to place the light as far to one side as possible and a few inches higher than the camcorder. If you don't have to move (say, when doing a standup segment with a reporter) you can place the light on its own stand, for even better control. Moving the light to the side turns it into a true key light and delivers improved facial modeling.
Indoors, I always prefer diffusion -- the more the better. A softbox cover or spun glass makes the light path wider, more even, and is more flattering to faces. This is also true outdoors at night.
Outside in the daytime, a camcorder light should punch up the subject's face just enough to make it the visual center of interest. I like to use direct sun for rim light and light the face with the camcorder light. Diffusion is less important, and an intense, narrow light beam has a better chance of competing with the daylight. Of course, you'll have a blue filter in place to convert the native 3200K lamp light to daylight color temperature.
Helping Darker Skin Tones
A camcorder light is great for reducing the contrast between darker flesh tones and light clothing -- especially blinding white bridal gowns. The answer here is graduated light: brighter for the upper part of the subject and dimmer for the lower. If your unit has barndoors, rotate them to the over/under position. Bring the lower barn door up until the light on the clothing becomes more moderate.
If this doesn't do the job, try adding a graduated scrim. Typically, this is a ring with a sandwich of three layers of metal screening. The top half of the ring is open and the bottom half divides into three layers of single, double, or triple screening. The screen creates a gradual beam falloff from hot to mild when you place it in front of the light with the mesh at the bottom, (You can also use a graduated neutral density filter on the camcorder lens, but that's not in the lighting department.)
Using a Built-in Light
But wait, you say; your camcorder already has a light built in. Uh-huh, but it's like using the screwdriver on a Boy Scout knife: sure, of course you can use it, but only if you have to use it because there's nothing more competent available (or, if you're out of available space for bringing your light kit along).
The battery needed to run the camcorder powers built-in lights, and they consume juice like Dracula drinks type O-positive. If you turn the light on for more than a minute or so, you'll shorten battery life dramatically.
Also, built-ins generally won't take accessories, so there's no way to control them. At best, you can try taping some diffusion over their transparent cover. Finally, if you're looking to shoot a high-end project, built-in lights just look amateurish.
On the other hand, when a beloved rug rat stands up to take her first steps and the light is bad, no one expects you to ignore that light on your camcorder. Built-ins -- in fact, all camera lights -- are like Bungee cords: crude and irritating to work with, but absolutely indispensable when you need to use them.
Contributing Editor Jim Stinson's book, Video; Digital Communication and Production, is out in a second, updated edition.